Foreign health cheats cost Havering trust �4.2m

FOREIGN health cheats who undergo treatment in hospital but run off without paying cost cash-strapped local health services �4.2m over two years – the highest amount in the country.

Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals Trust – which manages Queen’s Hospital, in Rom Valley Way, Romford, and King George, in Goodmayes, had to write off nearly �3m of bad debt in 2008/09 and a further �1.2m in 2009/10.

It is the most of any trust in the country, according to Freedom of Information (FoI) data collected by a national newspaper.

The debts include more than �44k in ante-natal care for a baby born prematurely with a host of illnesses to a Nigerian woman and nearly �80k for neurosurgery on a Ghanaian patient who had a brain haemorrhage.

The culprits are mainly pregnant women from overseas who come into the country close to full term, before having their babies and fleeing, a trust spokesman said.

Emergency patients from abroad who do not pay for treatment are also a drain on the trust, she added.

A series of measures has been introduced by the trust to try and reduce runaways, including pre-admission interviews so foreign patients are aware they may have to meet the cost of their treatment, accept that liability and have the means to pay.

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The spokesman added: “We are taking additional steps to track non-paying patients by working with the embassies of those nationals who are frequent offenders.”

Asylum seekers, foreign tourists and visitors who outstay their visas are thought to be among offenders.

A spokesman for the TaxPayers’ Alliance said: “There are huge pressures on the healthcare budget and taxpayers can’t afford to fund an international health service. Of course, no one should be turned away in an emergency situation, but equally hospitals need to ensure that they are doing all they can to recover medical care costs from foreigners who are treated here.

“It’s not fair that some health tourists see the UK as an easy way to get free treatment because they can’t afford it at home.”

The trust currently has �117m of rolling debt, according to the latest figures available.

l In another bid to save money, commercial, legal and technical advisors are being sent by the Treasury to identify savings in the contract between the Romford hospital and the private company which built and maintains it.

The controversial contract – known as a private finance initiative (PFI) – is similar to a domestic mortgage, but has been widely blamed for fettering health chiefs to huge repayments.

Catalyst Healthcare Management built Queen’s over three years in 2004 for �261m and is contracted to maintain the building for the next 33 years.

However, under the contract the local NHS trust owes the company �835m.

David Wragg finance director at Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals Trust, which manages Queen’s, lauded the move from the Treasury.

“It is a welcome opportunity to ensure the NHS is getting the maximum quality and cost-effectiveness from the PFI relationship,” he said. “We look forward to working on this project with our PFI partners and the Government.”

PFI was introduced so contractors meet the up-front costs of building new hospitals then operate them, recouping the money from the taxpayer over many years.

If the taskforce is successful, the team will be sent to similar PFI hospitals.

Lord Sassoon, Treasury minister, said: “It is critical that Government urgently addresses every opportunity for savings across all contracts, no matter how complex they may be. We owe it to the taxpayer to eliminate wasteful practice and gold plating in contracts.”

Dagenham and Rainham MP Jon Cruddas, who has written to health secretary Andrew Lansley over concerns for the hospital, said: “I welcome this. With PFIs tax payers are getting taken to the cleaners.

“If the economic situation is adding to the problems with the service at Queen’s then this needs to be addressed ASAP for the good of all citizens using the hospital.”